In its premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Compliance proved one of the most controversial films there, prompting multiple walkouts in its initial screening. And last month, INDY Week's Neil Morris called it the best film of the year.
The film chronicles a day at a fictional fast-food franchise where the manager (Ann Dowd, who recently received Best Supporting Actress from the National Board of Review for her role) is called by a police officer (Pat Healy) informing her that a young employee (Dreama Walker from TV’s Don’t Trust the B—— in Apt. 23) has stolen money from a customer and needs to be detained until the cops arrive. Even though audience members are clued in early that the “cop” on the phone is a fake, those on the other end of the line follow through with his demands—which include a strip search and increasingly degrading acts being perpetrated on the hapless cashier.
It sounds far-fetched—until you find out this scenario really did play out more than 70 times in the United States.
“My reaction to hearing the story of the events it’s based on was one of, ‘I’m not one of those people! I would never do that!’” says Zobel in a call to his apartment in New York City.
“But then you start realizing there are times when you just don’t know what you’d do in a situation. There are things that are built into us that in some ways I’m curious about. I don’t think that this is a matter of education or intelligence level, but the relationship to authority that some people have, and how that relationship comes out in people.”
Despite the grim subject matter of Compliance, Zobel says that his cast and crew had a better time making the film than some people have had watching it. “We were certainly not comfortable on set some times, but as creators, we had a different relation to what was going on onscreen — people who make horror movies aren’t scared all day,” Zobel says with a laugh. “We were aiming for an effect, so it wasn’t so much of a situation that was like that of watching the film.
“This was a movie that was really being made by virtue of the fact that all the people involved were interested. We weren’t interested in competing with The Avengers—it was just a group of people who were really interested in this idea. So we wanted to be faithful to the ideas that got us there, and making sure those ideas came across.”
Zobel’s eclectic background includes co-founding the popular Flash animation site Homestarrunner.com, home of such cartoon characters as Strong Bad and Trogdor. After college, he attended UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem with David Gordon Green, and went on to work with him on his films George Washington, filmed in Wilmington, and All the Real Girls, filmed in Asheville (Green, in turn, executive-produced Compliance).
His first feature, The Great World of Sound, was released in 2007 and received warm reviews. Filmed in North Carolina, it told an offbeat story about two hucksters who recruit amateur singers to make demo recordings.
“Argo was far and a way the most-mentioned film on our critics’ ballots,” SEFCA president Philip Martin said. “While there were other films that had more first place votes, Argo was consistently well-regarded by our membership and it ended up winning the poll by a comfortable margin.”
In a much closer race, actor-director Affleck was named Best Director over Kathryn Bigelow, whose Zero Dark Thirty edged out Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln for the second spot in the critics' poll.
Daniel Day-Lewis became the first three-time winner of the group’s Best Actor award for his performance as the title character in Lincoln (Day-Lewis previously won the award for his work in There Will Be Blood in 2007 and Gangs of New York in 2002). Jennifer Lawrence was named Best Actress for her turn in the dark comedy Silver Linings Playbook.
Director Ben Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was the overwhelming choice for the group’s Gene Wyatt award, given annually to the film that “best evokes the spirit of the South." Richard Linklater’s Bernie finishing second.
During the latter half of Skyfall, Judi Dench’s M, testifying before a bureaucratic inquest, declares that today’s true threats to safety and security are “individuals, not nations.”
Punctuated by a passage from Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” the expertly edited scene plays like a commentary on our post-Bin Laden world. However, the megalomaniac or terrorist-led organization was always the central villain throughout Ian Fleming’s James Bond books and the now-50 years of films they spawned, unlike most of Fleming’s Cold War spy novel counterparts.
It’s an allusion that’s likely intentional, for Skyfall is steeped in a nostalgia for cinema’s most enduring series. The indomitable iconography of the Bond films continues to make every new release an event. However, here it serves a more fundamental function. Whereas Casino Royale was a reboot of the Bond franchise, this represents its restoration.
Opening with a mistaken demise that harks back to You Only Live Twice, death and rebirth are the film’s overarching themes. Bond (Daniel Craig), a neurotic who word-associates “murder” with “employment” and “woman” with “provocatrix,” uses pills and drink to self-medicate demons dating back to some unresolved childhood trauma.
He’s also a relic in the age of cyberterrorism where, to quote his new quartermaster (Ben Whishaw), “I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey than you can do in a year in the field.” Meanwhile, M is a lioness in winter, on the eve of forced retirement after a computer list of undercover NATO spies is stolen and slowly leaked online.
My best friend from childhood, a ravenous science fiction reader, has been bugging me for several years to pick up David Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. Since my friend once read every Hugo Award winning novel ever written (in a single year, on a dare), I try to pay attention to his recommendations. But I never got around to it.
I wish I had. Cloud Atlas has been adapted into a fierce, visionary and deliciously baffling sci-fi epic from co-directors Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix). For fans of speculative fiction — the polite term for science fiction that dares to take itself seriously — it's the must-see film of the year.
Cloud Atlas tells six different stories in parallel, spanning several continents and centuries. Three of the stories reach into the past: San Francisco in 1973; Cambridge, England in 1936; and a ship at sea in 1849. The fourth story is set in present-day London, and the final two take place in the future — Neo Seoul in 2144, and an unspecified post-apocalypse setting long after that.
The central characters in each story are different, of course, but they seem to be recursive versions of the same people, in a way that suggests notions of reincarnation or karma. The characters are played by the same ensemble of actors, including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving and Korean actress Doona Bae. By way of makeup and digital effects, the performers switch ethnicity and even gender between story lines.
Crosscutting between multiple stories in parallel is a tricky maneuver, but as a visual medium cinema has ways of accommodating this approach. Two stories, that's manageable. Three stories is pushing it. Six stories? Insanity.
In 1922, Ernest Hemingway's wife Hadley was traveling from Paris to Switzerland by train when she made a rather historic mistake. Getting up briefly to buy a bottle of water, she left behind a suitcase containing virtually all of her husband's fiction writing up to that point. When she returned, the suitcase was gone. It was never recovered.
That's one version of the story, anyway. Hemingway's lost suitcase is part of our literary lore, and it serves as the inspiration — I use that word loosely — for The Words, an achingly dull film that seems a lot longer than its hour-and-a-half running time.
The movie begins in the present day with a public reading by author Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) from his new novel, also called The Words. As Clay reads, we flash into the story of his book, which is about another author, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper.)
In Clay's story, Rory is an aspiring novelist in New York City whose first book has been rejected by every publisher in town. This isn't surprising. As played by Cooper, Rory doesn't inspire confidence. He's a self-absorbed sort, with an adoring wife (Zoe Saldana) and a dad (J.K. Simmons) who's footing the bills while Rory indulges in his artistic struggle. (“I have to pay my dues!” Rory whines. “No, I have to pay your dues,” says dad.)
Rory's problems are solved when he discovers an old manuscript tucked away in a vintage leather briefcase. The story, set in postwar France, brings poor Rory to tears — it's clearly a work of genius. After some rote dilemma-wrestling, Rory submits the story as his own and quickly wins fame and fortune.
Inevitably, Rory is confronted by the actual author of the story, an understandably bitter fellow referred to as The Old Man and played by Jeremy Irons. Sitting on a park bench, the Old Man tells Rory the story behind his story, and we flash back yet again to 1940s Paris.
So, to recap: The film is telling us a story about Clay telling a story about Rory hearing a story from the Old Man, who wrote the story. And I didn't even mention the bit with Olivia Wilde as a sexy grad student.
The good news is that by this point you'll be far too bored to get confused. The direction, by the newcomer team of Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is surprisingly inert. Dramatic things happen in The Words, but there's no real drama. The contemporary scenes are draggy and bland, and the sepia-toned flashback sequences are too stagey to pack any emotional punch.
The casting doesn't help, either. Cooper doesn't come across as a tortured writer; he comes across as a handsome actor playing a tortured writer. Irons has similar problems, and he's further hindered by bad old-age makeup. Quaid seems mostly disinterested.
On the plus side, the script has some interesting elements of historical intrigue, and you can play spot-the-Hemingway-reference to pass the time. Zoe Saldana brings weight to the few scenes she's afforded in her bystander role.
The movie perks up a little toward the end. The ambiguous final scenes suggest a thread that would tie all three authors together, but only if you don't think it through too far. It doesn't work, but it almost works, and in a movie like this, you have to take whatever you can get.
It must have seemed like solid math at the time: Cerebral director David Cronenberg (+) postmodernist writer Don DeLillo (x) ascendent movie star Robert Pattinson (=) edgy art film with box office potential.
Sometimes, the numbers just don't add up. Cronenberg's tedious and talky Cosmopolis, adapted from DeLillo's novel of the same name, is a real disaster. For long and frequent stretches, the film seems to forget it's a film at all. It plays like an audiobook at double speed, with torrential dialogue and nothing to look at.
The preternaturally handsome Pattinson helps a little in that regard, I guess. He plays billionaire Eric Packer, a 28-year-old power broker of information and money. Packer spends most of the movie inside his tricked-out limousine/office, which comes equipped with space age display screens, expensive vodka and a retractable toilet.
Packer has just lost his fortune while his limo is hung up in Manhattan traffic, thanks to some vaguely Occupy-style protestors and the funeral procession of a famous Sufi rapper. As his empire crumbles, Packer holds court with advisers and other visitors, and has sex with some of them. He disembarks a few times, to consult and have sex with others. He also meets up with his new bride, but she won't have sex with him.
That about sums up the action of the movie. The rest is dense, interminable dialogue as the limo crawls along. Dialogue may not even be the right word. It's more a series of cryptic, declarative sentences about … well, I don't know what. Some examples:
“Money has lost its narrative quality. Money makes time; it used to be the other way around.”
“The urge to destroy is a creative urge.”
“Dying is a scandal, but we all do it.”
“Everybody is ten seconds away from being rich.”
“I have a severe anxiety that my sex organ is receding into my abdomen.”
I realize it's unfair to list quotations like this out of context. But that's the thing — they're not out of context. They're stated just like that, sprinkled into rapid-fire exchanges that go nowhere at all.
Cosmopolis does have some interesting moments. Appearances by Paul Giamatti, Juliette Binoche and Samantha Morton lend occasional focus. I liked the bit about the voice-activated handguns. And the wordiness sometimes piles into interesting shapes about information sickness and pathological consumerism.
But there's no way into this thing. Pattinson, looking blank and queasy throughout, isn't up to the task of leading the audience through Cronenberg's chilly universe. And the ending is just more talk, only now everyone is pointing guns at one another.
I didn't buy into a word of this film, and there are a lot of them not to buy into. This stuff might work as a prose poem (or a Don DeLillo book). But it sure doesn't work as a movie.
THE BOURNE LEGACY
When The Bourne Identity hit theaters in 2002, it jostled loose in me old fanboy quirks I hadn't experienced since Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It's a little embarrassing, but I would sometimes pretend to be an amnesiac superspy in airports and shopping malls—scanning the crowds, analyzing my options. I can tell you that the guy at the Cinnabon counter is 190 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I can tell you that the best place to look for a bathroom is at Sears, and at this hour of the morning I can run flat out for 120 meters before my back locks up.....
Opening today, The Bourne Legacy is the fourth entry in the critically and commercially successful spy series. Legacy works as both a sequel and reboot, but it's not as clever, it's not as thrilling and it's not as fun.
Matt Damon has been replaced by Jeremy Renner in the lead role, and the story makes a lateral jump from Jason Bourne to fellow black-ops hard guy Aaron Cross, who has his own set of problems.
The film starts out in an interesting place. After all the cramped urban violence of the first three films, we begin with sweeping aerial vistas of rugged Alaskan mountains. Alone in the wilderness on a training mission, Cross dives into icy rivers and fends off ravenous wolves as the film establishes its own visual tone.
Via some clever cross-cutting techniques with scenes from the third film, we learn that Cross is a trained assassin with the same covert outfit that produced Jason Bourne, and that events are taking place in parallel with events from the previous movie. Bourne's actions have caused a ripple effect, and now the government's nefarious handlers intend to systematically kill off all of their own assassins.
The Bourne Legacy is essentially about Cross' efforts to avoid that fate. Complicating matters, Cross' handlers have hooked him on rationed drugs which heighten his physical and cognitive abilities. Rachel Weisz enters the story as CIA-employed medical doctor—also targeted for elimination—who can help Cross kick. Together, they race around the globe, just a half-step ahead of new villain Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton), running the show from the usual high-tech nerve center of satellite feeds and nervous underlings.
Tony Gilroy, who wrote most of the first three films, takes over as director in Legacy and he clearly has a strong grasp on the Bourne template and mythology. Unfortunately, he lacks the narrative boldness and visual precision of previous helmers Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass.
Too many scenes drag, and the showcase action sequences are surprisingly familiar. We've already seen these rooftop pursuits and motorcycle chases. It's genuinely puzzling that Gilroy would repeat himself like this. The story gets muddy, too. Greengrass, in particular, was a genius at doling out precise amounts of visual information to move the story forward. (You can bet, watching a Greengrass film, that your eye is going exactly where he wants it to go.) Legacy is more clumsy, and the stakes just don't seem as high as they should be.
To really enjoy The Campaign, it’s best to be a) a Will Ferrell fan; b) a Zach Galifianakis fan; or c) from North Carolina. It isn’t surprising that this comedy about small-town candidates battling to win a seat in Congress is set in the Tar Heel State (by way of Louisiana, with filming taking place before N.C. state lawmakers added $60 million in filmmaking tax incentives this year). Ferrell’s parents hail from Roanoke Rapids and he still has relatives living in Cary. Galifianakis was born and raised in Wilkesboro and attended N.C. State University. Moreover, Nick Galifianakis, Zach’s uncle, was a three-term North Carolina congressman who lost the 1972 election for U.S. Senate to a former television commentator named Jesse Helms, a campaign marred by slogans denigrating Galifianakis’ Greek heritage: “Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us.”
Thus, there’s sneaky significance behind a seemingly offhand remark that the racist father of candidate Marty Huggins, played by Galifianakis, is a GOP heavyweight who once worked as a political operative for Helms. So, too, in the specter of Marty, the town and family eccentric with a heart of gold, pitted against an opponent skilled in the dark art of mudslinging.
Marty is recruited by two wealthy brothers and industrialists (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) to run against four-term congressman Cam Brady (Ferrell), a superficial politician armed with a sculpted coiffure and crowd-pleasing stump speeches about “America, Jesus and freedom.”
Marty, a Southern dandy working as tourism director for the fictitious burg of Hammond, undergoes a makeover led by his shadowy campaign manager (Dylan McDermott). Gone are Marty’s cardigans and twin pugs, replaced by a chocolate lab and a golden retriever that “test well.” His house décor is soon replete with guns, Bibles and mounted deer heads.
The Campaign finds its satirical groove during a series of absurd attacks that nonetheless ring uncomfortably true in today’s political environment. Cam insinuates that the mustachioed Marty has ties to al-Qaida, while Marty trumpets a canyon-colored short story Cam wrote in grade school about a fantasy land where "everything is free" as proof of the incumbent's Marxist leanings.
Ferrell applies his oblivious blowhard shtick to what’s essentially a John Edwards parody (infidelity included). Meanwhile, Galifianakis channels an effeminate manner and lilt that’s a dead ringer for character actor Leslie Jordan. Yet, as the candidates’ tricks become dirtier, so does the film’s content. The ceaseless profanity has little purpose other than to explore the reaches of an R rating. Every woman in sight is a whore or gold digger. And you don’t have to be a red stater to be put off by a gag that conflates sexual innuendo with a line from “the Lord’s Prayer.”
Despite a svelte 85-minute running time, the by-the-numbers plot peters out even before it segues into a contrived climax. Any movie that pads screen time with cable news talking heads playing themselves is already out of things to say—seriously, have Chris Matthews and Wolf Blitzer qualified for SAG cards?
Ferrell and Galifianakis’ outsized personalities, as well as the only known instance in cinematic history of both a baby and dog being punched in the face, can sustain the film only so far. Indeed, the real-life political dots are far more fascinating to connect than any on screen. Otherwise, when it comes to The Campaign, to borrow Marty’s slogan appraising the current state of politics in Washington, D.C., it’s a mess.
Step Up Revolution, the fourth installment in the Step Up franchise, ditches the bogus high-culture/low-culture clash that fueled earlier installments. The story? Sean (Ryan Guzman), head of a flashy flash mob, romances Emily (Kathryn McCormick), whose father (Peter Gallagher) plans to tear down Sean’s Miami ’hood for a luxury development.
Let’s face it: Pop influences rule the arts commercially, and hip hop has dominated the music charts for three decades. That battle is over. As always, the two white-bread leads must channel the ethnic other (Black, Hispanic, Asian) in the class struggle. Guzman may have a Spanish surname, but he is virtually indistinguishable from Channing Tatum, the star borned from Step Up el primero.
Which raises the question: Four films about dancers, and no gay people (except for the unspoken homoerotic bond between Sean and his BF, Eddy)?
Having said all this, Step Up Revolution is the best entry in the series. Although people still have to follow their dreams yadda yadda, those dreams include community empowerment and art as political protest. And, rather than just a Very Special Episode of America’s Best Dance Crew, choreographer Jamal Sims stages some spectacular numbers, including a thumping disruption of a City Council meeting with The Mob in black suits and fedoras (they have a bigger tech budget than the crews from previous SU movies).
In this jittery moviegoing time, I say beats, not bullets.
In any other universe, The Dark Knight Rises would be hailed as the apex of superhero moviemaking, a work of such technical breadth and narrative depth that it would redefine its genre. The problem, of course, is that the final leg of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy follows its two mega-hits predecessors, the now-oddly underrated Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Is it possible for any finale to live up to such hype and expectations? Probably not, but try and somewhat succeed as it might, The Dark Knight Rises could have done better.
In assessing the scope and influence of Nolan’s seminal series, it’s interesting to note that today there remains more demand than ever for such populist popcorn-munching fare as The Avengers, Spider-Man and Superman (indeed, the second Man of Steel reboot since Batman Begins comes out next year). Nolan’s films didn’t commandeer the genre, but instead served as the rising tide that lifted all the other comic book boats.
Indeed, Nolan’s Batman trilogy is evolutionary more than revolutionary. The Batman mythos, particularly the fact that he’s a superhero without super powers, afforded Nolan a canvas to paint not only portraits about the fractured human psyche but also broad strokes about contemporary America. The dumbest thing about Rush Limbaugh’s latest blather (other than its source)—claiming that the use of the villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (a comic book character created in 1993) is a not-so-thinly veiled attack on Mitt Romney’s past work with the financial services company Bain Capital—is that Nolan’s entire Batman series has been a pulpit for post-9/11 neoconservative orthodoxy.
Nolan broadens his focus to more provocative lengths in The Dark Knight Rises. The film opens with the Batman in winter, eight years after the end of The Dark Knight and taking the fall for the murder of District Attorney Harvey Dent. The myth behind Dent’s death prompted an expansion of police powers that locked away thousands of criminals and largely restored order to Gotham City’s streets. And with the return of good times, the city’s corporate community has never had it better.
Batman remains in hiding, as does Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), now a Howard Hughes-like recluse whose intervening lack of fitness has left his body hobbled from those years of leaping and falling from Gotham’s high-rises. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), a “wartime commissioner” on the cusp of being replaced during this era of peace and prosperity, remains haunted by the lies that helped bring about that peace and beleaguered by a fear of evil that he knows will never totally disappear.
Thus arrives Bane (Tom Hardy), a hulking, masked evildoer who holds himself out as the maniacal savior of Gotham’s poor and working class but whose actual aim is the annihilation of Gotham City itself. It’s no coincidence that the initial steps in Bane’s dastardly plan involve a complex co-opting of the city’s financial services industry and corporate boardrooms. And if that symbolism is too vague for you, Bane’s debut onto the public stage involves his eye-popping razing of a professional football game, a terrorist act preluded by a complete rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Bane lords over a state of anarchy armed with a nuclear bomb harvested from a scrapped clean energy project originally financed by Wayne (take that, Greenies!). He frees the criminals, and anything of value is declared common property. Kangaroo courts presided over by Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy, now appearing in all three of Nolan’s Batman films) are convened to try would-be dissidents to this new social and economic construct. Unbeknownst to anyone, however, Bane’s bomb is designed to explode on its own at the end of five months.
That’s also about as long as The Dark Knight Rises seems to last. An unfortunate byproduct of Nolan’s rising esteem as a filmmaker is the license to indulge that comes with it, a penchant for bloat that occasionally crept into The Dark Knight before going full-blown in Nolan’s Inception. The relatively economical 141-minute running time of Batman Begins has now metastasized into 165 minutes of amorphous atmospherics punctuated by Han Zimmer’s blaring power chords.